Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Visual mix-tapes ala "Garden State"

Those who remember my post a while back about "How Not to Use Music" and my dislike of Garden State should have a pretty good idea of why I find this funny.

Nice to see Alicia Silverstone is still working.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Quick tips #4 - Character names

Here's some quick advice that will be appreciated by everyone who reads your script - try not to give female characters names that are typically boys' names. Over the years I've seen many a writer try to be cute by doing this, including female Mickeys, Mikes, Davys, Bennies, Bobbys, and the list goes on.

And for the love of all that is holy, if you MUST do this, please, please, PLEASE make it abundantly clear in the description - from moment one - that the character is a female. It helps the reader out a lot. I should not get past the first line of a character's introduction and be confused as to if the character is male or female.

Monday, July 20, 2009

P2 - a lesson in tension and two-handing

I'm a sucker for "two-hander" movies - films with two characters stuck in a confined location with each other for the duration of the film as the tension between them builds. First, they're budget conscious - usually you only need one location, two principle actors and occasionally a few peripheral day players. That can always help in netting buyers. Hard Candy is one of my favorite examples of such a movie that used these factors to its advantage. Though the scope is slightly wider in each of these, both Misery and Red Eye follow similar formulas too.

Second, they have the potential to lead to great character work - after all, if you're stuck with just two characters for 90 minutes or so, they'd better be damn compelling characters. More often than not, one character wants to do harm to another character. Not only does that add tension on a physical level, but also on an emotional level. For example, if the whole film is about a normal person somehow trapped in a confined space with a psycho, we're going to spend the entire movie wondering when the psycho is going to snap, and just what will set them off. It's like watching a ticking time bomb without being able to read the numbers on the counter.

The issue between the characters need not be that one is crazy. Perhaps one has a deep secret that they don't want the other to know. Perhaps the setting of the film is a police interrogation room and the determined cops have just 24 hours to break down their lead suspect in a brutal murder, as in the Homicide season one episode, "Three Men & Adena."

(By the way, Netflix that episode immediately. And if you have time watch all four episodes at the start of that season that lead up to it.)

All of this explains why I was eager to check out 2007's P2, and it has almost nothing to do with the fact that Rachel Nichols ("Alias," Star Trek, G.I. Joe) was starring it it.

Okay, maybe a little bit... but can you blame me?

P2 is set on Christmas Eve, and actually starts slowly. The opening title sequence shows the camera moving slowly closer to a car trunk, with the scene reaching its climax as a woman's arm finally succeeds in breaking out from within. Regular readers of this column will know that I usually rail against this kind of flash-forward opening, but here it's surprisingly effective. Writers Franck Khalfoun, Alexandre Aja, and Gregory Levasseur know to show the audience just enough to tease the direction of the film without giving anything away. All we really know is that at some point, a woman is going to get locked in a car trunk. We don't know by whom, or the circumstances that surround it.

We meet Rachel Nichols, playing as a businesswoman named Angela, working late at the office on Christmas Eve. After an awkward encounter with a co-worker who sexually harassed her at the company holiday party, she goes down to the parking garage to find that her car won't start. This leads her to solicit some help from a security guard named Tom (played by Wes Bentley). When that proves fruitless, she decides to call for a cab, declining the guard's offer to join him for a meal. He's friendly, but still somewhat off-putting. However, when the cab arrives, she finds she's locked in the building. Worse, as she attempts to get help, she finds herself trapped in the complete darkness of the parking basement - and gets chloroformed by Tom.

The opening is a little slow - it takes about 20 minutes to get to the point where Rachel is knocked out - but the atmosphere helps foster the tension. Tom is shown voyeuristicly watching her about 15 minutes in the film, just after she turns down her offer for a meal together. The film - and the script - walk the fine line of making Tom seem socially awkward with hints of creepiness, without going too far into the latter. Something's clearly not right with this guy, but there's nothing one can put a finger on.

When she wakes up, Tom has redressed her in a tight, cleavage-bearing white dress, and shackled her to a chair in his security office. Offering her dinner, he speaks to her in an off-puttingly pleasant fashion, almost as if they're old friends or lovers, telling her she needs to make time for herself. I liked that the script didn't turn him into a raving lunatic from the start. The fact that he's chained her up and clearly undressed her is creepy enough on his own. If anything, his genial nature makes the whole situation more creepy. It's like he's trying really hard to win her over, and that makes him less predictable than a guy who's just holding her captive with plans to either rape or dismember her.

It also gives the slight hope that Angela might be able to talk her way out of this. Even as Tom makes her call her parents and explain that she won't be home, there seems to be the thin hope that she can make him see reason and get out of this without any violence. Indeed, it takes 45 minutes for the first true violence, when Tom beats up and brutally murders the co-worker who came onto Angela. This is pretty much the point where it becomes clear that there will be no reasoning with Tom. I like that the violence in this film is rare, making it feel all the more brutal when it does happen. It's like what Hitchcock used to say about the anticipation of the bomb exploding being more effective than the actual explosion.

Angela manages to flee into the parking garage and the second half of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, with all the expected close calls. At one point, Angela traps herself in an elevator to stay away from Tom, and he responds by flooding the place, forcing her out. Then later, some cops come to check out the place - as a tasered Angela is recaptured and locked in a car trunk.

Another interesting point about this scene - the cops clearly seem to get the vibe that something's not right with Tom. As they search the place, it's evident that their gut is telling them something is horribly off, but they can't find anything amiss. A lesser film would have made the cops bumbling types who wouldn't recognize a corpse if they tripped over it. This is the more interesting way of dealing with that scenario.

The third act jumps the rails slightly as the stunts get a bit more over-the-top, but all in all, I like the way the script builds up. The first twenty minutes set the scene, making it evident just how isolated Angela will be in the parking garage. The next 25 minutes play off of that, showing just how much Angela is at Tom's mercy, even as she tries to bargain for her release. Then, the second act descends into more slasher-movie territory, even as the pressure mounts. It seems that there's nowhere for Angela to run.

However, there are a few issues with it. A major problem is that Angela's character has no real arc. We don't know much about her other than the fact that her whole life is her job. In some ways, that makes it easier for her to disappear without anyone thinking anything of it, but other than that there's really no depth to her role as written. Nichols is the film's bright spot, and she does what she can, winning a lot of audience sympathy in the process, but it's not as if this circumstance leads to any deep epiphany or character catharsis.

This leads to my second big issue - the ending has Angela brutally murdering Tom in a situation where she easily could have left him alive and allowed the cops to take him away. His death is gratuitous and the circumstances can no way be considered self-defense. It leaves blood on Angela's hands, and simply feels wrong. If she had a stronger character arc, perhaps this ending would have made a better statement.

Is P2 a great movie? No, and it seems most critics weren't fans. Though Roger Ebert gave it three stars when it came out, and it holds at 35% freshness on the Rotten Tomatoes scale. It also made less than $4 million domestically when it came out. However, there's great potential in the film, and it's worth a look. I'd invite my readers to check out the film via Netflix and consider how they would have improved on the script's flaws.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Quick tips #3 - Generic titles

Today's tip: catchier titles get read sooner and instill more goodwill.

Your title is the first thing any reader will see. In some cases - who am I kidding? - in EVERY case it will determine which script they pick off the slush pile next. A good title should give a sense of the genre, hint at the premise and be memorable. Bad titles tend to be generic, bland or pretentious.

To give you an idea, I went over to ScriptShadow's site and took a look at the titles of the script's he's recently read. Here's what I'd pull from the reader pile, and here's what I'd leave for the next schmuck to get stuck with (after doing a check on the page counts of course. If any of the "bad" ones were 90-100 pages, I might take them anyway.)

Good titles:
She's Out of My League
Van Damme v. Seagal
The True Memoirs of an International Assassin
You Again
I Want to F___ Your Sister

Bad titles:
Taxonomy of Barnacles

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Quick tips #2 - Trailer brainstorming

Today's quick tip is something I admit I've really only tried once. Writing purists may cringe, but if you're in the early stages of brainstorming and need to give some structure to your ideas, it might help to write up a mock trailer for your script. This way, you are forced to succinctly sum up your idea, probably with a minimum of dialogue mixed with some well-chosen visuals. You'll have to establish the hook, figure out how to introduce characters, and even give a tease of some later plot points.

If nothing else it should force you to focus on what the core of your story will be, as well as help you figure out some of the big moments.

Best of all, when someone asks you to describe your story, you'll probably be able to spit out a succinct pitch in a few sentences instead of offering one of those rambling pitches that everyone loves to hear:

"Well there's this guy... and he's in school... and his grades suck 'cuz he's spending all this time doing drugs and chasing girls. Oh, did I mention that his dad left his mom and now she's dating another guy. Anyway, he tries to get his girlfriend to give him the exam answers for the class he's taking that she's TAing, but she turns him down. They break up and he flunks out.... has to leave the campus in shame. So he goes home and finds out his mom has actually hooked up with one of his old high school classmates... it's the guy who bullied him all through high school and he's now the coach of the football team. He's home two nights but can't take it when the bully keeps picking on him, so he hits the road and tries to find his dad, who seems to have completely vanished a year ago. Oh and his estranged brother comes along for the ride... have I mentioned him yet?"

You still awake? Most of the time, you can count on the paragraph above to count for 1/5 the pitch that Mr. Hypothetical Writer will offer. While some of the stuff he mentions will probably make for entertaining viewing, the majority of it is the sort of set-up material that tends to be too much information when pitching the story. We probably only need to know that our hero was thrown out of school and that once he finds he has no place in his mother's home, he goes looking for his dad.

Homework assignment - think of 4 trailers you've seen recently and pretend you had to pitch the movie, with only the material contained in the trailer as your reference point. See if you can do it in three sentences.

Okay, that ended up being less "quick" than I intended. I also hasten to add that I in no way am endorsing this in lieu of a strong outline and a solid beat sheet. This exercise is just to get you thinking about the core of your story.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bookmark "Go into The Story"

A grateful thanks and a shout-out to screenwriter/blogger/producer Scott Myers of Go Into The Story fame. He was nice enough to do a post this morning promoting my blog, and even included a little interview with yours truly. I've pointed readers over there before, but now I'm telling you, click that link and bookmark his blog.

Scott has been a professional screenwriter since selling K-9 in 1987. According to his bio, he's an an Executive Producer with Distillery Pictures. On top of that, he teaches screenwriting at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and online through UCLA Extension.

And - presumably because he enjoys making the rest of us bloggers look like slackers - he updates his blog at least three or four times a day, five times a week. When the man sleeps, I have no idea, but you can learn a lot from his posts. If you're like me, you'll find that it'll take you months to comb through his archives until you've read everything. They're great time wasters for when you should be working on your own scripts (or blog, as the case may be) and you might even learn a thing or fifty.

Quick tips #1 - First impressions

Realizing that my blog posts have been falling behind lately, I've decided to catch up with a series of "Quick tips" - advice so self-explanatory that it needs little elaboration.

Today's tip - "first impressions."

Give significant thought to how you introduce your protagonist (or any other important character). The first moment we see him could define him in our minds for the rest of the script.

A great example from a recent film: the adult James Kirk in Star Trek, first shown in a bar. His first act onscreen - he flirts with Uhura. Second act - mouthing off cockily to Starfleet cadets, egging them into a fight despite being outmatched.

(And if you count the younger James' first scene, we see him at the age of ten stealing a car and driving it into a deep quarry, just barely jumping out in time.)

You tell me - what do these scenes tell us about Kirk? How does this action set the stage for his arc in the script? Most of all - if you had only that scene to go on, how would you describe Kirk to someone?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Show, don't tell

The admonition to screenwriters to "show, don't tell" is about as old as the first time a meddling producer says, "I have notes." Admittedly, I give this note at least five times a week too, but what does it mean?

Usually, it means that the dialogue is spelling out something that is either self-evident, or could be shown visually. Ask yourself - which is more interesting to watch:

1) a character calmly walking into a room, taking a deep breath, then smashing his priceless Ming vase on a destructive impulse.


2) a character walking into a room and snarling at his friend, "I'm madder than I've ever been before and I could smash my most prized possession and not even care."

Pencils down. That was an easy one.

If you want to see an incredible example of "Show, don't tell," check out Pixar's UP. There's a wonderful sequence that fills in all of the lead character's history with his wife in less than five minutes. There's virtually no dialogue in this sequence after we meet them as kids, see them marry, see their hopes and dreams for the future, even as their dream to explore gets put on hold. Then we see her take ill and go to the hospital, as well as her implied death - all of it done without dialogue and all of it done with some of the most simple of slices of life.

Another good example happens a few moments after that. We've already been tipped off that developers want the land our hero, Carl's, house is on, but he won't sell. When one construction worker accidentally damages the mailbox outside the house (the sentimental value of which having been set up in the aforementioned montage.) Carl attacks the worker with his cane, an act he immediately regrets.

In the following shots we see:
- the developer react with interest, looking like the cat who ate the canary.
- a crowd grow outside as Carl runs inside.
- From Carl's point of view, looking out, we see people telling the cops what happened.

Then, we're shown Carl waiting outside a courtroom, holding a court summons. He walks into the courtroom. We don't see the hearing. Instead the film dissolves to a clearly defeated Carl being dropped off outside his house by a cop. His shoulders are slumped in defeat, and it's clear what must have happened.

Then comes a line that I would bet was added late in the process by an exec concerned that the audience wouldn't make the correct inference: "I don't think you're a public menace. The car will come by to pick you up tomorrow," says the cop as she hands him a brochure for a senior living center. My feeling is that Carl's defeat is pretty clearly communicated by the visuals (kudos to the animators who worked on his body language.)

In any event, a good exercise is to go through your script and see how many lines you can eliminate by replacing them with some bit of physical acting or visual action.